A letter is a segmental symbol of a phonemic writing system. The inventory of all letters forms the alphabet. Letters broadly correspond to in the spoken language, although there is rarely a consistent, exact correspondence between letters and phonemes.
The word letter, borrowed from Old French letre, entered Middle English around 1200 CE, eventually displacing the native English term bōcstaf (). Letter is descended from the Latin , which may have descended from the Greek "διφθέρα" (writing tablet), via Etruscan.
There are more phonemes in English–about 44–than there are letters of the alphabet. A letter may therefore be associated with more than one phoneme, with the phoneme determined by the surrounding letters or etymology of the word. Regional accents have a significant effect; the letter a can range from five to twelve sounds depending on the origin of the speaker. As an example of positional effects, the letter c is pronounced k before a, o, u, or consonants (e.g. critical), but is pronounced s before e, i, or y (e.g. democracy). Conversely, the same phoneme may be shared by more than one letter, as shown by the c and s in fence and tense.
A sequence of graphemes representing a phoneme is called a polygraph. A digraph is a case of polygraphy consisting of two graphemes. Examples of digraphs in English include ch, sh, and th. A phoneme can also be represented by three letters, called a trigraph. An example is the combination sch in German.
Specific names are associated with letters, which may differ with language, dialect, and history. Z, for example, is usually called zed in all English-speaking countries except the US, where it is named zee. As elements of alphabets, letters have prescribed orders, although this too may vary by language. In Spanish, for instance, ñ is a separate letter, sorted after n. In English, n and ñ are classified alike.
Letters may also have a numerical or quantitative value. This applies to Roman numerals and the letters of other writing systems. In English, Arabic numerals are typically used instead of letters. Greek and Roman letters are used as mathematical symbols in equations and expressions.
People and objects are sometimes named after letters, for one of these reasons:
|Letra votz no es devisabla.
E per escriure convenabla.
Letra per miels esser exposta.
Es menor part de votz composta.
|A letter is an indivisible sound
That is fit for writing;
A letter, to define it better,
Is the smallest part of a composite sound.
|Assamese alphabet||অ, আ, ই, ঈ, উ, ঊ, ঋ, এ, ঐ, ও, ঔ, ক, খ, গ, ঘ, ঙ, চ, ছ, জ, ঝ, ঞ, ট, ঠ, ড, ঢ, ণ, ত, থ, দ, ধ, ন, প, ফ, ব, ভ, ম, য, ৰ, ল, ৱ, শ, ষ, স, হ,ক্ষ, ড়, ঢ়, য়, ৎ, ং, ঃ, ঁ|
|Arabic alphabet||(Alphabetical from right to left) Aleph]], ﺏ, ﺕ, ﺙ, ﺝ, ﺡ, ﺥ, Dalet]], ﺫ, Resh]], Zayin]], ﺱ, ﺵ, Tsade]], ﺽ, Teth]], ﻅ, Ayin]], ﻍ, ﻑ, Qoph]], Kaph]], Lamedh]], Mem]], ﻥ, هـ, ﻭ, Yodh]]|
|Armenian alphabet||Ա, Բ, Գ, Դ, Ե, Զ, Է, Ը, Թ, Ժ, Ի, Լ, Խ, Ծ, Կ, Հ, Ձ, Ղ, Ճ, Մ, Յ, Ն, Շ, Ո, Չ, Պ, Ջ, Ռ, Ս, Վ, Տ, Ր, Ց, Ւ, Փ, Ք, Օ, Ֆ|
|Syriac alphabet||(Alphabetical from right to left) Aleph, ܒ, ܓ, ܕ, ܗ, ܘ, ܙ, ܚ, ܛ, ܝ, ܟܟ, ܠ, ܡܡ, ܢܢ, Samekh, ܥ, ܦ, Tzadi, Qoph, ܪ, ܫ, Taw|
|Cyrillic script||А, Б, В, Г, Д, Е, Ё, Ж, З, И, Й, К, Л, М, Н, О, П, Р, С, Т, У, Ф, Х, Ц, Ч, Ш, Щ, Ъ, Ы, Ь, Э, Ю, Я|
|Georgian script||, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,|
|Greek alphabet||Α, Β, Gamma, Δ, Epsilon, Ζ, Η, Theta, Iota, Κ, Lambda, Μ, Ν, Ξ, Omicron, Π, Ρ, Σ, Tau, Upsilon, Phi, Χ, Ψ, Omega|
|Hebrew alphabet||(Alphabetical from right to left) א, ב, Gimel, Dalet, ה, ו, Zayin, Heth, Teth, Yodh, Kaph, Lamedh, Mem, נ, Samekh, Ayin, פ, Tsade, Qoph, Resh, ש, ת|
|Latin alphabet||A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z, &|
|Hangul||ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㅏ ㅐ ㅑ ㅒ ㅓ ㅔ ㅕ ㅖ ㅗ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅛ ㅜ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟ ㅠ ㅡ ㅢ ㅣ|
|Burmese alphabet||က ခ ဂ ဃ င စ ဆ ဇ ဈ ည ဋ ဌ ဍ ဎ ဏ တ ထ ဒ ဓ န ပ ဖ ဗ ဘ မ ယ ရ လ ဝ သ ဟ ဠ အ|
|Bopomofo||ㄅ ㄆ ㄇ ㄈ ㄉ ㄊ ㄋ ㄌ ㄍ ㄎ ㄏ ㄐ ㄑ ㄒ ㄓ ㄔ ㄕ ㄖ ㄗ ㄘ ㄙ ㄚ ㄛ ㄜ ㄝ ㄞ ㄟ ㄠ ㄡ ㄢ ㄣ ㄤ ㄥ ㄦ ㄧ ㄨ ㄩ ㄭ|
|Ogham||ᚁ ᚂ ᚃ ᚄ ᚅ ᚆ ᚇ ᚈ ᚉ ᚊ ᚋ ᚌ ᚍ ᚎ ᚏ ᚐ ᚑ ᚒ ᚓ ᚔ ᚕ ᚖ ᚗ ᚘ ᚙ ᚚ ᚛ ᚜|
|Ethiopic||ሀ ለ ሐ መ ሠ ረ ሰ ሸ ቀ በ ተ ቸ ኀ ነ ኘ አ ከ ኸ ወ ዐ ዘ ዠ የ ደ ጀ ገ ጠ ጨ ጰ ጸ ፀ ፈ ፐ|
|Tifinagh (Amazigh alphabet)||ⴰ, ⴱ, ⵛ, ⴷ, ⴹ, ⴻ, ⴼ, ⴳ, ⴳⵯ, ⵀ, ⵃ, ⵉ, ⵊ, ⴽ, ⴽⵯ, ⵍ, ⵎ, ⵏ, ⵓ, ⵄ, ⵖ, ⵅ, ⵇ, ⵔ, ⵕ, ⵙ, ⵚ, ⵜ, ⵟ, ⵡ, ⵢ, ⵣ, ⵥ|
The International Phonetic Alphabet is used to represent exact pronunciation, for example, [ʔ], which is named a Glottal Stop.
For other writing systems and their letters, see List of writing systems.
In practical terms, tests have proven that lowercase words are easier to read. They also take up less space on the page, a considerable benefit when materials such as paper and ink were scarce and valuable.
The terms uppercase and lowercase originated in the days of handset type for printing presses. Individual letter blocks were kept in specific compartments of drawers in a type case. Capital letters were stored in a higher drawer or upper case.
Typography has traditionally been considered an art form, encompassing both letter design and the relationship of the letters to one another. Type designers strive for clarity and beauty in individual letterforms, as well as character in a font. Old fonts such as Bodoni, Caslon, and Garamond have been in wide use for centuries, with only slight modifications. Advances in print capabilities, new ways of viewing the written word, and changing aesthetics have led to refinements of classic typefaces as well as the introduction of entirely new designs. In the early nineteenth century, sans serif typefaces were first created. are the finishing strokes of letters, small extensions considered to enhance readability. Sans serif fonts give a modern and informal impression, but are slightly less legible as text than serif faces. Without serifs, an uppercase I (i) is indistinguishable from a lowercase l (L).
The first consonantal alphabet found emerged around 1800 BCE to represent the language of the Phoenicians, Semitic people workers in Egypt (see Middle Bronze Age alphabets), and was derived from the alphabetic principles of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Our present Roman system derives from this Phoenician alphabet, which had 22 letters. Nineteen of our present letters evolved from the early Phoenician forms; letter shapes and order of appearance correspond closely. The Greek alphabet, adapted around 800 BCE, added four letters. This was the first alphabet assigning letters not only to consonant sounds, but also to . The Roman Empire brought the development and refinement of our Roman alphabet, beginning around 500 BCE. The Romans added or dropped certain letters to accommodate Greek and Etruscan words; they also experimented with styles such as cursive when writing in ink. By about the fifth century CE, the beginnings of lowercase letterforms began to emerge in Roman writing, but they did not come into common use until the end of the Middle Ages, a thousand years later.